Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 4

A serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

I am now three months into my stay at the exclusive VIP suite,33A, at Prey Sar prison.

I share my cell with the cream of corruption: a killer – who is also a pornography connoisseur, a rich General’s son – who has been sent to Prey Sar by his angry father, a drug dealer – the only person who I have ever met who sleeps with his eyes open, an American returnee – who is not named Elvis, a very ugly lady-boy – who’s notable feature(s) is a large pair of breasts, 13 bike thieves – aged between 12 and 23 and an obsessive compulsive who insists on jogging (or stomping) on the spot, at 05:00 every morning.

While I read the bestselling thriller, “What to do when some- body dies”, kindly provided by my embassy, I note how my cell mates pass the time; Eating rice, while glancing at lady-boys breasts, viewing the killers endless porn marathon, comparing with lady-boys breasts, smoking, followed by staring at lady-boys breasts, playing cards, followed by watching lady-boys breasts, singing karaoke, at the lady- boys breasts and playing with the old chap, while cupping lady-boys breasts.

The rainy season has finally arrived, bringing slightly cooler, though humid weather and an ankle deep lake of sewerage. However, inside Prey Sar, there is another benefit – rain water is slightly cheaper!

At some point, in the distant past, some NGO did something useful and fitted 16 x 5,000 litre rainwater storage tanks around the remand block A. The rainwater falling on the massive red tile roof is piped into large blue plastic tanks. Logic would suggest that the cool, clear rainwater would be given to prisoners for showering, helping reduce the current scabies epidemic. The storage capacity would allow 4 buckets of water for each of the 1,000 detainees in block A.

Logic of course doesn’t prevail here and overnight the taps at the base of each tank has been padlocked closed and the tanks are now literally overflowing – wasting this precious resource.
The queue of Khmer prisoners, each carrying a 20l paint bucket, are informed by a stick welding Vietnamese prisoner, who is responsible for the grey market water trade, that rainwater is priced at 500r a bucket.

While this is 45 times more expensive than Phnom Penh City water, it is half the price of the shower water which is delivered daily by truck in white plastic bottles. There are plenty of takers as the line of grinning inmates, wait to pay – for rainwater – in a country which has no shortage of this basic commodity.

The drains around the prison are not maintained during the dry season or cleared before the wet season and the resulting mess is quite predictable. First, a mass of cockroaches crawl out from the drains and climb the prison building, followed by rats the size of donkeys and then raw shit.

It is the rats that now have a group of Khmer prisoners excited – lunch! I watch as they work together in order to corner the rats and then club them to death with a stick. I am thankful that I am in a VIP cell, where rat meat is only delivered in fillet, soup or sausage form. Either way, I decide that I will play it extra safe tonight and make myself a packet of chicken noodles.

The prison routine is designed so that nearly everyone can understand. There are two daily work sessions, the first doors are opened around 8AM for workers who are responsible for carrying “brown water”, to replenish the brick tanks inside each cell. The brown water is pumped in from a storage reservoir, just outside the prison walls. Some deal with the daily delivery and distribution of “clean” shower water, in white bottles and drinking water, in the standard 20l blue bottles. The clean water is delivered twice daily on trucks which carry around 400, 20l bottles. Others are responsible for sweeping the yard and carrying buckets of putrid garbage to the prison dump.

Khmer prisoners are lead out into the exercise yard, a room at a time, where they are forced to stand in the burning heat and recite the new prison rules – word for word. Prisoners are sent back to cells at around 11AM, when the lunchtime meal of soup and rice is delivered, and the prison is locked down for lunchtime. The afternoon session is roughly the same, starting around 2PM and ending at 4PM. Simple. If you can’t work it out by the end of the first week, you must be retarded.

One of the only English speaking prisoners in my cell is a Khmer/ American returnee. Like the majority of returnees I have met since, he is polite, well spoken, helpful and reasonably well educated, having been in America for most of his life. The reason he has returned is that he had been convicted of a crime in America and following a US prison sentence, he was sent back to Cambodia – a country which he doesn’t know, where he has no surviving relatives and where there is no social support system. He could certainly function as a constructive member of society, but instead, he has been sent to Prey Sar.

Many of the returnees in his situation, go by an English name, but not Bill, Steve or John but (yo! mo-fo! stick a cap in your ass!) street names like Tank, Shotgun, Trip and in the case of my cell mate – Trigger.

Trigger has a great sense of humour and he is good company, but having never seen an episode of Only Fools and Horses, he doesn’t understand why his action-man name makes me smile. On returning to my cell, I am surprised to receive a wedding invitation, one of my cellmates informs me that as privileged, VIP prisoners, it is quite common to be invited to weddings, by guards or in this case, by the Director himself.

I am quite excited at the prospect of getting some decent food and perhaps a few drinks, but it appears that I haven’t fully understood the situation. My cellmate, Trigger, continues to explain that while I am certainly invited to the wedding, it will not be possible for me to attend because I am in prison. Trigger is certainly living up to his name today.

So the correct protocol in the unfortunate event that you cannot attend, is to fill the oversized envelope with cash, which will then be collected by the room leader, the block chief and finally the Director. Still, it’s the thought that matters. So I think for a moment and then into the envelope, I put a crisp new 50 reil note, that I had been saving for a situation just like this.

While on the subject of money, the room leader announces that block A will shortly have a new exercise area. However, authorities require a donation of $50 from each cell to complete the project. Wonderful.

At this time, block A consisted of just the cell block, plus, in the yard; a tin hut -single seat – barber shop and the wooden market shack. It is lucky then, that the Directors wife, just happens to own a very competitive building supply business. As VIP prisoners, we are expected to grin like retards and, on request, hand over unlimited handfuls of cash for major improvement projects such as this. I struggle under the circumstances to grin like my cell mates, but I hand over $10, just to keep the peace.

There are 48 cells in block A, which means that our new exercise area will have a total budget $2,400, I visualise a large cement slab, perhaps a basketball court, volleyball or a football pitch. Perhaps a gym area with some weights. The following day, two small trucks arrive, one of sand and another with 20 bags of Portland cement – maximum cost $150. It takes a group of volunteers an- other day to mix and lay a wafer thin layer of cement 10m x 20m, straight on top of grass and mud. The finish resembles a miniature lunar landscape, where prisoners can now stand in the rain, and recite the prison rules.

I am still held on pre-trial detention, charged with a crime that is just not possible. The downside seems to be that the Cambodian police are just perfect. A 100% detection rate, 100% conviction. Every day since my arrival, I have been subjected to continuous karaoke, inhuman heat and the never ending ecstatic screams of my killer cell mate’s porn collection. Plus the flies. And the all night card games. And the stupid lady-boy jiggling her/his tits.

Today I am sick. I have a headache. So I request permission to leave block A and seek the expert advice of our very own vet, who is also a doctor. On the side. After many forms, I walk to the prison hospital, which is around 400m from block A.

I explain that I have a headache and I would like some pain killers. It’s a gift doc, an easy one. But he is Khmer and has seen “House” on AXN, he no doubt believes that my headache is the physical symptom of a much more serious problem. Probably lupus. He checks my arms and legs and appears a little surprised that they are all there. Not lupus, so it must be my heart or kidney stones. As the prison MRI is sadly missing, the doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to my kidneys. The doctor fills a small bag with funny coloured pills and I return to my cell, picking out the paracetamol on route.

That afternoon, two guards arrive with handcuffs to take me away. My cellmate, Trigger, translates the bad news – I have a weak heart and I am being transferred to an off-site hospital. I consider the situation, I am innocent. The police, 100% detection rate. The courts, 100% conviction rate. I have a headache. Cambodian prison doctor – shit, I’m going to die. The guards however are trained professionals, I am cuffed and forcefully removed, my wrists snap and my hands turn into purple balloons. We walk to a prison van where we join three more guards with AK47 assault rifles – rust coloured. Five guards, a driver and three guns – for one prisoner, who judging from the prognosis, is unlikely to survive the night. I think of the 50 reil gift for the directors wedding party – I didn’t make the vig. And now he will shoot me in the head, a fake prison break, my chest tightens as we drive out towards Phnom Penh.

Monivong hospital is not on Monivong, it is just over the Monivong bridge in the Chbar Ampouv area of Phnom Penh, somewhere to the right of highway 1. The hospital is a large four story, rectangular building with a red cross painted on the front, a car park for 40 cars – empty. The perfect place for a Mafia style execution.

To be continued.